Mon, Feb 12, 2007 - Page 13 News List

Rap's comfort zone

This tiny New Jersey town is elite, discreet, very white - and home to hip-hop royalty

By Douglas Century  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ALPINE, NEW JERSEY

Farrell in his studio at his home.

PHOTOS: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Driving north on the Palisades Interstate Parkway, it's easy to blow past this town and end up halfway to Rockland County. But make the turn onto Old Closter Dock Road, and you'll find yourself touring one of the richest towns in America, a hamlet of small leafy streets and stately homes, a longtime preserve of the wealthy white elite.

By Alpine's standards Eddie Farrell's house is hardly jaw-dropping. A five-bedroom split-level ranch with a lawn and swimming pool, it is to all outward appearances a slice of cookie-cutter, upper-middle-class domesticity.

But buzz the intercom, and a visitor soon descends into a hip-hop version of Bruce Wayne's Batcave: a gleaming wonderland of computers, keyboards and recording gadgetry hidden behind the soundproofed suburban facade. On a recent winter morning Farrell, a producer and DJ known professionally as Eddie F., was holding court in his Mini Mansion Recording studio. Loading a pair of MP3 files — recent releases by Young Jeezy and Jay-Z — he used the Serato Scratch Live program and a pair of time-coded control records on his Technics 1200 turntables to execute a series of precise cuts and scratches. "It's all digital, but the sound, the touch, everything's the same as we used to get with vinyl back in the day," he said.

Some of the biggest names in hip-hop and R&B, from 50 Cent to TLC to Mary J. Blige, have made the pilgrimage to Farrell's basement to record and mix hits, a fact well documented by the rows of platinum-sales plaques and Ascap songwriting awards on his walls. But his more buttoned-down neighbors would never know it. "I try to keep a real low profile," he said, casually dressed in a gray T-shirt, gray shorts and black slippers, a diamond stud adorning his left earlobe.

He made the move from his native Mount Vernon, New York, in 1990, at the height of his success as the DJ of Heavy D & the Boyz. "I was one of the first out here in Alpine," he said. "There was no one doing hip-hop out here back then. I used to have to give people real specific directions to get out here to do a session."

Seventeen years later they all know the way. Hip-hop has come to Bergen County full force, and this tiny, affluent town has blossomed into the favored bedroom community of rap's moneyed set, including artists like Sean "Diddy" Combs, Lil' Kim and Fabolous and music executives like Andre Harrell and Damon Dash. Giving a tour of his home and recording complex, Farrell pointed out the loft space where Combs used to sleep. "As a matter of fact Puffy used to live with me for about a year or two," he said, using Combs' now-retired nom de rap.

These days Combs hardly needs to crash on a homeboy's sofa. The house he recently bought here, for a reported US$7 million, is a 1,600m2 hilltop mansion with eight bedrooms, nine bathrooms, indoor and outdoor pools (complete with waterfall), racquetball and basketball courts, a home theater, a wine cellar and a six-car garage.

The rapper-turned-CEO Andre Harrell says it all started in nearby Englewood. "The first attraction was the glamour of the Hollywood in Jersey that Eddie Murphy created," he said. When Harrell moved to Alpine in 1990, however, he found something quite different. "The trees and the rugged kind of nature had a serenity. If you came from an environment of any sort of urban blight, it made you feel like you've finally made it and you're at peace. It was so serene and storybooklike. It was the kind of thing you grew up watching on television. You said, 'OK, this is what the American dream is.'"

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